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A Human Rights Worker Writes of her Christmas in Israeli Detention

By Shireen
In a prison cell, the few times a day when the door opens are an event. On the evening of Christmas Day, when the rattle of keys was followed by a soft Scottish voice asking cheerfully, “is there a bed free in here?” I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. It was Theresa, and she, like me, was attempting to attend December’s International Nonviolence Conference in Palestine.

I was very glad to have a colleague join me, but her arrival in my cell meant that she too had been refused entry into Israel – which controls all the routes into Palestine. Already three of us were spending our week in the detention cells at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, and beginning to think if we never saw another piece of white bread again, it would be too soon.

I had never actually met Theresa before her appearance in the prison, but we have a lot in common. Over the last few years, we have both regularly come to volunteer for human rights work in Palestine. Army training and years of propaganda makes it hard for an Israeli soldier to look at a Palestinian and see an equal human being, someone whose life should be respected. The presence of Internationals can mean that Palestinians move more freely and safely through their neighbourhoods than would otherwise be possible.

Theresa, and I, along with South African Robin (in the next door cell), and Italians Vik and Gabriele (who had been refused and put back on a plane within hours of his arrival some days before) had all come many times to Palestine to do this work. And therein lay our problem.

By 2002, the Israeli “Defence” Force was faced with increasing numbers of Internationals who kept turning up at inconvenient moments with cameras and quotes from the Geneva Convention. During 2002-2003, Israeli soldiers were alleged to have deliberately wounded at least twelve foreign human rights workers with live ammunition, and killed several others, the best known being Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, and UN worker Iain Hook. The international outcry that resulted appears to have protected internationals to some extent. But recently human rights organisations based in Palestine have realised that there is a more subtle weapon being used: the “Banned List“, or, as the Israeli court calls it, the “Inclusion List”.

Though my friends and I were coming with personal invitations to an internationally recognised conference, it was the fact that the Israeli immigration computers apparently recognised our names from this list, that carried the most sway with the airport authorities. We each experienced several hours of grilling by a representative of the Ministry of Defence, who set our teeth on edge with his very unconvincingly friendly “I’m sure everything will be cleared up and you’ll be very welcome” routine. None of us were surprised when a young woman came to announce that, for the usual mysterious “security reasons”, we were all being refused entry to Israel (“Did I ask to go to Israel?” Robin muttered resignedly.) and that we would be escorted to the Detention Cells overnight.

We comforted each other with the reminder that it was all part of our cunning plan. At least, Plan A had been to sail through immigration and attend the Conference, but Plan B was that we would sit tight in prison, and our lawyer would take our case to court. This would require a presentation of the evidence against us and a chance to argue our right to enter.

None of us was allowed to call our consulates. Luckily friends contacted our lawyer on our behalf because we weren’t allowed to call her either. Six days later, when a friendly bloke from my consulate called the prison to speak to me, he was still rather startled. “Heard about you on the news!” he said. “The usual ‘security reasons‘ line, eh? Yes, means absolutely nothing to us either.” When Theresa arrived, our lawyer took the opportunity to demand to speak to all of us, and that was a relief, because I was very worried about Vik.

We had known that the agenda of the authorities would be to send us back to our own countries before we could go to court, that our lawyer could eventually get a halt on this order, but that there would be a short time lapse before this, during which only our lack of co-operation with this agenda would keep us in Israel. At 4am the day after our arrival, we were all simply shouted at when we refused to get ready to board a plane. Then, at 4pm the same day, a group of police entered Robin and Vik’s cell and announced they would be removed by force. Robin and Vik stated our lawyer would have obtained an order to allow us to wait for court by then, and repeatedly asked to speak to her. When Vik demanded a call to the Italian consulate, a policeman responded by kneeing him in the groin.

Once they had Vik (who has a heart condition) on the ground, he clung to the bed frame, so they commenced to punch and kick him, violence that continued within my view after they dragged him into the corridor. Despite my pleas, this ended only when they realised they needed to take him to hospital. Vik told us later that he feared he was having a heart attack, but this turned out to be pain from torn chest muscles. He spent the remainder of the week in CCTV-monitored solitary confinement.

On day 7 we went to court. It was a huge relief to be able to speak to Robin and Vik, who were handcuffed together. During a court case entirely in Hebrew with no translation, with an hour of “secret evidence” given about us which neither we nor our lawyer could hear, the judge came to the conclusion that he would uphold the refusal for us to enter.

His two main reasons appeared to be that we had, in the past, been with Palestinians holding non-violent demonstrations against the Land-Grab Wall (as a human rights observer and a medic I am invited by Palestinians to attend in both these capacities) and that two of our own governments had informed Israeli security that we were anarchists! In true “Life of Brian” style we have been fighting ever since about which two of us – “I’m definitely one of the anarchists.” “No, I’m the anarchist!” Since in my case, my anarchism involves a belief that people can co-operate together without leaders, but generally means I do a lot of community work, I’m surprised that I’ve managed to frighten two governments, but there you go.

While in the prison, we took the opportunity when we could to talk to the guards about the reasons we were there. A young guard, working to fund his studies, responded to our descriptions of the Israeli army regularly firing upon unarmed men, women, and children, with the disbelief I often hear from Israelis uninvolved in the peace movement. “No,” he said, “Jewish people wouldn’t do that.” “I have seen it, many times; it is an accepted policy,” I told him. “No,” he repeated, “there must have been some mistake, or you didn’t understand.” What I find interesting is that when people respond in this way, they don’t try to suggest that I am lying, but they never ask for any more details. It is simply that it does not fit with what they wish to believe about their country, and therefore, the less said the better. Working alongside Israelis and Palestinians who have faced up to the truth and found courage and comradeship on the other side of it, I wish I knew how to present this truth so it would be heard by young Israelis like my guard.

As I write this, a countryman of Theresa’s, Andrew MacDonald remains in the detention cells. Andrew has done similar work to us, been deported, changed his name to return, been arrested, and held again. What makes Andrew different is that he is still resisting his deportation, stating that he cannot co-operate with the removal of human rights workers, and he has now spent months in prison, with little hope of release back to Palestine. (“He resists how? Do they only kick me?” complains Vik.) [Update on Andrew below.]

After we left, Theresa was held until the conference was over and the day she had to fly back to return to work came up. But she already has her time off work booked for this year’s Palestinian Olive Harvest. We feel that our thwarted attempt to return to our friends in Palestine is not the end of the battle, but just an early skirmish in the fight to overturn the Banned List, which so far appears to include more than 200 people, and possibly a much larger number. Under the “Access for Peace” banner, we hope that many more human rights workers like ourselves will refuse to accept “No” for an answer.

Update as of January 21st:
At 3:00 in the morning of January 15th, ISM-activist Andrew Macdonald was forcefully deported from Israel, 7 weeks after being abducted from Palestine by the Israeli Border Police. He was carried on to the plane and accompanied by two Police Officers on the plane from Tel Aviv to London. [Read more]

On Thursday January 19th, David Parsons, a Human Rights Worker from Canada, was arrested by the Israeli Police in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron and taken to Kiryat Arba Police station, and is currently awaiting deportation at Ben-Gurion Airport.

On January 20th, Theresa MacDermott’s Member of Parliament, Mark Lazarowicz, tabled two questions to Parliament, as follows

  1. To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, if he will investigate the case of Theresa McDermott who was detained by the Israeli authorities on her arrival in Israel on 25th December 2005 and thereafter deported.
  2. To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, whether he has made representations to the Israeli authorities on the operation of a blacklist of persons not allowed to enter the occupied territories.